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Dorothy Brizill hopes to turn ballot-challenging into a D.C. summer tradition: By next Monday, July 19, the District’s überactivist will challenge the city’s Board of Elections and Ethics to invalidate tens of thousands of signatures collected for a voter initiative to bring slot machines to the nation’s capital—thereby attempting to keep the measure off District ballots in November.
Two years ago, in July 2002, Brizill led the challenge to kick Mayor Anthony A. Williams off the primary-election ballot. The Williams campaign handed in more than 500 petition pages, many featuring signatures in the same handwriting and circulated by members of one family. Brizill’s surgical dissection of the incumbent’s nominating petitions helped convince the elections board to throw out the vast majority of signatures, forcing Williams to launch a write-in campaign to keep his seat.
Brizill’s 2004 complaint will likely be similar: that slots petition circulators did not follow D.C. law.
Yet the Pélé of ballot-booting will have a tougher time this go-round: Scott Bishop Sr., a central figure in Williams’ petition crisis, busied himself with other things this summer. Kofi Annan, Tony Blair, and other prominent non-D.C. residents, whose purported signatures on Williams’ petitions turned his re-election bid into a joke, won’t likely be named on the 3,869 pages turned in by slots-initiative advocates.
And Angelo Paparella & Co. are petition pros.
Paparella heads Progressive Campaigns Inc., a Santa Monica, Calif., firm hired by gambling proponents to boost the six-day signature-gathering effort. According to financial-disclosure reports, PCI has been paid $60,000 so far for its efforts to help put the initiative on the ballot. If approved by voters, the initiative would pave the way for investors to get a 10-year exclusive license to operate video-lottery terminals worth $765 million in net revenue a year.
The signature-gathering savant and the D.C. government watchdog have more in common than you might think: Both Paparella and Brizill have a history of public-interest activism.
In the ’80s, according to his bio, Paparella worked as statewide field director for CalPIRG, part of the nationwide coalition advocating things such as clean air, consumer protections, and campaign-finance reform.
In the late ’80s, Paparella worked as director of operations for Voter Revolt, a group aided by consumer crusader Ralph Nader back in the days when he wasn’t helping Republicans win the White House. The group supported Proposition 103, a voter initiative that sought regulation of the state’s auto-insurance industry. In addition to a 20 percent rate rollback, Proposition 103 strengthened the power of the state’s insurance commissioner and established good-driver awards, among other things.
Initiatives became the vogue in the Golden State as a mechanism to take on special interests that seemed to control legislation in Sacramento. By 1992, California had a cottage industry of propositions and referendums. Paparella decided to cash in: He formed PCI that year and began selling his expertise to groups pushing for term limits, drug reform, and other, community-specific issues.
Over the past decade, PCI’s petition experts have fanned out from California to other initiative hot spots, including D.C. According to Paparella, PCI has lent its expertise to the Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 1998 and the Treatment Instead of Jail for Certain Non-Violent Drug Offenders Initiative of 2002.
PCI built its reputation on pushing underdog, lefty initiatives spurned by the political establishment. “Even with plenty of backing and determination, some of the best candidates—and the most crucial issues—never get a fighting chance,” reads the PCI Web site. “That’s because some of today’s toughest foes include tight deadlines, ever-changing regulations, voter apathy, even fraud.”
In recent years, PCI has shifted allies from the High Times subscriber base to the high rollers of the gaming industry. The company has hit the jackpot working on slots initiatives in states other than D.C., including a proposition to put slots at racetracks in Maine. Best Bet for Maine, a pro-gambling political-action committee funded by the Las Vegas firm Capitol One LLC, paid PCI nearly $180,000 to manage a slots-petition campaign in 2002, according to news reports.
Paparella’s firm, however, has run into problems in exporting its brand of ballot activism beyond California. Many states that allow initiatives require that petition circulators be residents—a detail that can cause problems for PCI’s troupe of California-based petition experts. “We’ve seen firsthand how laws can change unexpectedly. We guarantee compliance with regulations in each state,” says the PCI Web site.
If PCI can’t overturn them. The company was part of a coalition of groups that unsuccessfully challenged North Dakota’s residency requirement for circulators. A decision by the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals deferred to North Dakota’s right to “police the petition process” and “protect the petition process from fraud and abuse.”
According to D.C. law, circulators of initiative petitions here must be at least 18 years of age, a resident of the District of Columbia, and a personal witness to every signature on the petition page.
Given those requirements, what role could the PCI imports have played in the slots petition campaign? Here are the prevailing explanations:
•Paparella told LL on June 30 that the out-of-state petition gatherers had arrived to help with the slots effort. He said they’d be out on the streets circulating petitions.
•Slots initiative counsel John Ray insisted that the PCI consultants would sit in a conference room checking the petitions for valid signatures.
One out-of-town circulator who talked with LL ended up quoted in a Washington Post story. He was collecting signatures at the Safeway on Rhode Island Avenue NE.
Having employed witnesses, video, and other reporting methods, Brizill contends that PCI contractors did gather signatures and then got local D.C. residents to sign the bottom of petition sheets, certifying that they had witnessed the signatures.
“Dorothy can say what she wants to say,” Ray told LL. “There’s nothing in the law that prohibits us from hiring a company to manage the petition drive for us. It’s done all over America. As long as we comply with the law and make sure every circulator’s a D.C. resident, then we comply.”
In this case, “management” is being handled by dozens of T-shirt-clad youngsters who spend their nights at Chinatown’s Red Roof Inn. Other jurisdictions have questioned this form of political activism. “The evidence supports the finding that Progressive circulators operate as political vagabonds, going anywhere there is work, and intending to remain nowhere,” reads a decision by the Supreme Court of Arizona, affirming a decision to knock down a PCI-assisted referendum in Scottsdale. “The Progressive circulators are migratory workers with no interest in…local issues. They will not be affected by the changes they advance.”
•After running in five D.C. council elections and serving 14 years in public office, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil should know the rules for busing senior citizens to political events:
1. Be prompt with the pickup.
2. Provide enough food for everyone.
3. When buying boxed meals from KFC, order extra mashed potatoes.
Brazil went one for three Tuesday night, when he bused in approximately 30 seniors from Claridge Towers and a few other complexes to the Ward 2 Democrats endorsement meeting.
The Brazil campaign left Ward 2’s greatest generation waiting over an hour for a yellow bus to transport them to the City Museum, where the local party cell was meeting that evening to decide whom it would give its support to. And when their 44-seat chariot arrived, the early-bird-special-eaters weren’t happy to find out that the KFC boxed meals provided were in short supply, say sources who attended the event.
But the campaign did provide extra containers of mashed potatoes and gravy.
The endorsement was the first beauty contest of this year’s at-large council race, which features incumbent Brazil along with lead challengers Sam Brooks and Kwame Brown. In the first round of voting, Ward 2 resident Brooks came out on top with 36 votes. Brazil received 34 votes, and Brown got 25. According to Ward 2 Dems rules, a candidate needs 55 percent of the votes to secure an endorsement. So Brooks and Brazil went into a runoff.
The results? Brazil: 33 votes. Brooks: 31.
In the end, the Ward 2 Dems offered no endorsement.
Brooks says that many of his supporters took off after the first vote, an option not open to Brazil’s crowd. “The bus didn’t go anywhere,” he says. “My people did.”
Brooks considers the nonendorsement a triumph for his underdog campaign. “This is the kind of institutional event for a 14-year incumbent to coast to victory,” says Brooks. “If we’re doing well there, then we must be doing really well in the field.”
Ward endorsements generally don’t move the masses, but Brazil clearly placed a premium on the Ward 2 vote. The campaign sent out postcards for the event, called voters, and rallied the reliable senior vote.
That kind of investment falls in character with the spendthrift Brazil campaign, which had raised $398,000 as of June 10. It has already spent $219,000 of that monstrous sum.
Perhaps Brazil should tout the spending as part of the his economic-development platform?
“We’re the front-runner,” explains Brazil campaign manager Darden Copeland. “We need to spend like it.”
•Usually councilmembers moan that Mayor Williams doesn’t clean house enough. Yet this week, three councilmembers urged the city’s chief executive to reinstate someone he had dismissed: Department of Health Deputy Director Theodore J. Gordon.
“Mr. Gordon has been an exceptional policymaker on behalf of District residents,” wrote Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson in a letter to the mayor.
“We are well aware of Mr. Gordon’s reputation not only as a strong manager and environmental health expert, but as an independent-minded public servant,” the trio added. “We understand that his independence has been a challenge to executive branch leaders whose expertise does not match his own.”
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